Arapeta Marukitepua Pitapitanuiārangi Awatere (whose name is also recorded as Te Arapeta Pitameirangi Marukitepua Awatere) was born on 25 April 1910 at Tūpāroa, on the East Coast, to Petuere Wī Hēkopa Awatere, a farmer of Te Whānau-a-Hinetāpora hapū of Ngāti Porou, and his wife, Hēni Hautao, also known as Hēni Pratt (Parata). The family name was taken from the Awatere River, where Arapeta’s great-grandfather, Te Whetūkamokamo, had died in battle against a Ngāpuhi force. Later, Ngāti Hine of Ngāpuhi sent young rangatira women and men to intermarry with Ngāti Porou to ensure a lasting peace. Awatere’s maternal grandfather, Wiremu Parata Moihi Kā of Ngāti Hine, was accepted into Ngāti Porou in the same spirit of reconciliation.
While Arapeta was still an infant his mother took him by boat to Whangaruru to her marae, Pīpīwai, to be raised by a relative, Hēni Māhanga. As they were being transported to shore, waves swamped the rowing boat. The sleeping infant’s head was submerged several times, but he did not wake up. This was interpreted as a sign that he would one day play an important role for his people. Awatere’s pito (umbilical cord) was buried in the wāhi tapu (sacred ground) in front of the hall on the marae: it was symbolic of the return of a long lost family to the north.
Awatere returned to the East Coast at the age of six and spent the rest of his childhood under the guidance and tuition of his Ngāti Porou relations. He learned Māori lore from respected tohunga, including Pineāmine Tamahori. At the whare wānanga (houses of learning) Umuariki and Ruataupare at Tūpāroa, Awatere was trained in karakia, whaikōrero (oratory) and whakapapa, and the history and use of ancient weapons. He won the taiaha Tūwhakairiora for his prowess with weaponry. When he attended the native schools at Tūpāroa and Tokomaru Bay it always struck him as odd that pupils were not allowed to speak Māori. He eventually spoke fluently in many languages and could quote poetry in Latin, Greek and English.
After Awatere’s parents died he left Tūpāroa to work as a sailor to pay his way at high school. He attended Te Aute College in Hawke’s Bay, and during school holidays went back to the ships to earn money. He passed the interpreters’ first grade examination in Māori in 1925. After leaving school he joined the Native Department in 1928 and was stationed at Rotorua, Wellington and, from 1933, Gisborne. While there he was a member of the Kaitī School Committee, organiser and secretary of the Māori Voluntary Welfare Workers at Kaitī and a physical instructor at the Gisborne YMCA. Awatere married Elsie Bella Rogers of Ngāti Whakaue at Ōhinemutu on 17 January 1931; they were to have five daughters.
In 1928 he joined the New Zealand Territorial Force and studied the great figures of European military history. Awatere was successfully to combine the Māori and European military traditions during the Second World War. He enlisted in November 1939, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in March 1940. Posted to the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion after the campaigns in Greece and Crete, he served as an intelligence officer with the battalion and with the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade. With rank of captain (temporary major), he commanded C Company in the fighting at Tebaga Gap in 1943 and was awarded the Military Cross. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, he was placed in command of the Māori Battalion in November and awarded the DSO after the fighting at Faenza in northern Italy in December.
Apirana Ngata had opposed Awatere’s taking command of the Māori Battalion on the grounds of a supposed inherited stubborn streak that would not be in the battalion’s interests. In fact Awatere was not at all reckless about the lives of his comrades, and it pained him deeply that so many were killed. He later wrote numerous poems in remembrance of his fallen comrades. He was a determined commander who led from the front and gave no quarter: there were persistent rumours about the mistreatment, even killing, of prisoners. Awatere was both feared and admired by his men. On his instructions his men communicated in Māori, and in Māori code when they were on the front line or during reconnaissance to avoid eavesdropping by the enemy.
After his return to New Zealand in August 1945, Awatere spent two years on the road with Eruera Stirling, honouring the fallen soldiers of the Māori Battalion at hundreds of marae around the country. After this he rarely spoke of the war. He participated in two separate rituals of purification to release himself from the effects of warfare.
In 1948–49 Awatere established a short-lived seafood business before rejoining the Department of Māori Affairs. He took university courses in anthropology, philosophy and Māori in 1952 and in philosophy in 1955, and did extensive research into Māori history and ethnography. He served as a Māori district welfare officer in Whanganui (from 1953), Rotorua (from 1958) and Auckland (from 1959). Awatere was known to spend his own salary on this welfare work and to give clothes or money to those in need. In Auckland he led a haka team, Maranga, and a choral group, the Aotearoa Folklore Society. They participated in competitions, toured the country and travelled to Samoa and the Cook Islands. He was elected to the Auckland City Council in 1962, serving until 1969. In 1963 he was chosen to perform in the ceremonial challenge in front of Queen Elizabeth II at Waitangi, an honour that overwhelmed him. He used his taiaha, Tūwhakairiora, which was made to fit a man over six feet tall. Awatere was not tall, but stocky and extremely strong and had practised constantly in order to master the use of the weapon.
Awatere did not sleep much, and when he did he preferred the floor. He seemed to his family to be up all night, composing choral pieces on the piano or writing pages of poetry in Māori, which he then translated into English. He was passionate about everything that pertained to the Māori world, including the language. He opposed the use of the macron in written Māori, preferring the double or triple vowel. He immersed himself in whakapapa and tribal history, and composed numerous waiata. During long car journeys to the many hui he attended, he would chant these in a droning monotone.
Awatere’s health deteriorated in the 1960s. He suffered a stroke and developed diabetes, which was not diagnosed until severe physical damage had been done. In 1965 he began an extramarital relationship with Tuini Hākaraia. In 1969 Hākaraia took up with Hendrik Vunderink. On 2 August Awatere experienced several rehu (premonitions) that Hākaraia was in danger. Early on the morning of 3 August he went to her home in Te Atatū, and during an altercation stabbed Vunderink with a knife he was carrying in his overcoat. Awatere was charged with murder. His defence was that his diabetes had created a psychosis, but there was conflicting evidence as to whether he had been fully conscious of his actions. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In prison, Awatere continued to write and compose and to keep abreast of Māori political and social events, and he produced an extensive collection of writings on Māoritanga. He had a constant stream of visitors and taught and mentored students from university, or anyone who had a thirst for Māori knowledge. Awatere began haka groups in prison, and taught Māori to other prisoners. He involved himself in many other intellectual pursuits, including teaching himself Japanese.
His death, on 6 March 1976, was completely unexpected. He had reached a point of excellent health and fitness and was looking forward to his imminent parole. He was intending to return to Tūpāroa and to rebuild the wharenui, Tangihaere. He was survived by his wife and children.
Arapeta Awatere’s tangihanga was enormous. It took the funeral cortège several days to travel between Auckland and Tūpāroa. Circuitous routes were taken in a vain effort to avoid the many marae that wanted to farewell him, but they simply set up road-blocks. His final poroporoaki (farewell) was at Mangahānea, in Ngāti Porou territory, although a contingent from Ngāti Hine came to claim him also. His old war comrades were his pallbearers, but on his final journey up the hill to Waitetoki he was borne by his grandsons. He was buried beside his mother.